New York — If you can't move, improve. That seems to be the sentiment these days as real estate values remain beyond reach of many and the economy stays sluggish.
Americans, not to be daunted, are making words like rehab, renovate, restore, preserve, and transform into highly active verbs. They haven't given up their ideal of the ''little dream house.'' Instead, they've just decided to make what they have dreamier. They are taking their present living quarters, or what they can afford to buy or rent, and, in the words of one young renter, ''making it work.'' Making conventional spaces more livable and lovable has become big business as people who are staying put invest in redesigning, remodeling, and redecorating.
In 1981, according to the Bureau of the Census, residential-property owners spent an estimated $46.4 billion for upkeep and improvement of their properties. The average expenditure per residential property was $758. The American Institute of Kitchen Dealers estimates that $18.5 billion will be spent by Americans this year on new and remodeled kitchens.
Bathroom remodeling has soared as people have decided to bring more appliances, glamour, color, and decoration to what was once a plain-Jane functional room. It is now estimated that 7.3 million families will remodel their bathrooms in 1982, which is almost twice the estimated figure of 3.8 million families who will remodel their kitchens this year.
Room additions are popular because couples can often absorb the higher interest rates on a loan for a $10,000 to $20,000 add-on room, but may never manage the interest rates involved in paying for a new home. Remodeling activity , according to the National Home Improvement Council, has become so vigorous that current expenditures for home repairs and improvements are at an all-time high. Home improvement contractors are riding the crest of the biggest wave of prosperity ever to hit the industry. And the army of do-it-yourselfers in the country, who are renovating brownstones in New York, Victorians in San Francisco , and miner's cottages in Aspen, Colo., are finding a battery of new products and services to help them with their chores.
To make these products and services more visible, cities all over the country are sponsoring home fix-up exhibitions and shows. These rank from small shopping-mall displays, in which a dozen or so contractors or manufacturers rent booths where they may discuss home improvement projects with the public, to enormous exhibitions like the first annual ''City House: The Big Apple Fix-Up'' that took place in New York in September.
The Big Apple Fix-Up show was planned to assist homeowners and renters in all neighborhoods in their efforts to recycle, remodel, and revitalize old buildings. It was sponsored by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the Real Estate Board of New York Inc., the Citizens Committee for New York City Inc., and the New York Urban Coalition. It drew 150 exhibitors of everything from greenhouses to energy-efficient windows, paintmakers, and security systems. It featured four days of talks, films, and demonstrations aimed at teaching and informing homeowners and renters. The thousands that sauntered around booths at the Seventh Regiment Armory filled shopping bags with enough literature to feed their home improvement dreams for months to come.
The trend toward such big fix-up shows continues to grow. Over 100,000 homeowners are expected to turn out for the first annual Chicagoland Home Show, to be held at the O'Hare Exposition Center Feb. 17-20, 1983. More than 300 exhibitors will display everything from patios to picket fences, landscaping, and the new furniture needed for renovated areas. Other cities such as Milwaukee and Cleveland have sponsored annual fix-up shows to assist homeowners for some time. More cities and towns are joining the movement.
The rash of home improvement projects has also sparked the growth of a new kind of home decorating service store for do-it-yourselfers. The new Janovic/Plaza Inc. store that opened this summer at 67th Street and Third Avenue in New York (a new address for an old establishment) probably epitomizes this trend.
''One-stop convenience shopping is the basic concept,'' explains Evan Janovik , a co-owner. ''A customer can come in with a single swatch and, with our help, literally coordinate all paint, wood finishes, wallcoverings, window treatments, decorative fabrics, floor tiles, and even shower curtains needed for a job.''
Purchases are made, Mr. Janovic points out, by men and women who are busy and want to save time. Deliveries are immediate from stock on the floor or from a nearby warehouse. Customers can get help in making selections from a staff trained in home decoration. It is the kind of store and marketing concept that will doubtless grow.